Who Was Saint William of Vercelli?

The statue of St. William of Vercelli at Montevergine

On June 25, Irpinians all celebrated the Feast Day of Saint William of Vercelli, also known as William of Montevergine. While I’ve mentioned him before in Irpinia: The Land of the Wolf and in our list of the Top 10 Places to Visit in Irpinia, I thought it would be fun to dive a little bit into his life story in honor of his Feast Day celebration.

Saint William of Vercelli was born in 1085 into nobility in the town of Vercelli in Italy’s Piedmont region and brought up by a relation after the death of his parents. He undertook a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and, during this pilgrimage, he asked a blacksmith to make an iron implement that would encircle his body and increase his suffering to wear for the duration of the trip.

After he returned to Italy, he intended to go to Jerusalem. While en route, he reached Southern Italy, but was beaten up and robbed by thieves. St. William considered this misfortune a sign of God’s will to stay in that region to spread the message of Christ. He settled on Monte Vergiliana, located in what is now the Province of Avellino, where he lived as a hermit. There, he attracted a number of followers and founded the Sanctuaryof Montevergine, where it is claimed he performed a variety of miracles.

Saint William left Montevergine in 1128 after discussions with his priests that the lifestyle he promoted was too austere. He settled on the plains in Goleto, near the town of Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, where he began a new monastic experience, with the Abbazia del Goleto, which was a place for women who felt called to the religious life to begin their studies.

The Abbazia del Goleto near Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi

Saint William founded several other monasteries, but mostly remained in Goleto, dying there on June 25, 1142. His remains were buried in Goleto, where they stayed until they were transferred to Montevergine on September 2, 1807, as ordered by the king of Naples Gioacchino Murat. His relics are also found in a variety of churches throughout Campania. Catholic tradition states that William foresaw his own imminent death “by special revelation”.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Roger II of Sicily was a major patron of St. William of Vercelli. In fact, the Saint also founded a variety of monasteries for men and women throughout Sicily and Roger even built a monastery for St. William opposite his palace at Salerno so that the Saint could be near him always.

According to a 1591 text by Tommaso Costo, while visiting King Roger, a prostitute wanted to prove the genuineness of St. William’s faith and, complicit with the king, tried to get into his bed. In response, St. William put burning embers on his bed and laid down, inviting the prostitute to follow his example. Legend states that the woman repented of her mistake and switched to a more religious life. Other sources state that the prostitute’s name was Agnes and, after her conversion, she built a monastery in Venosa, where she led a monastic life with other women. Her story is in the Dictionary of Saintly Women.

St. William’s best-known miracle is the “Miracle of the Wolf, which took place in 1591. Images of the saint often show him with a domesticated wolf. According to legend, a wild wolf was terrorizing the area around Montevergine, eating chickens and goats. In fact, the wolf even mauled St. William’s donkey to pieces. But St. William prayed to God for strength and was able to tame this wild wolf, making it his pack animal.

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